Hardly a surprise to see Grant Hanley leading from the front for Norwich City. 

Bar that opening day dismissal at Cardiff, and the suspension that ruled him out for Wigan the following weekend, the Scottish international has started every other Championship game for Dean Smith this season. 

That means Hanley has had a front row seat for a lengthy unbeaten league run, bookended by a painful reminder this remains a work in progress.  

Throw in two partners in Andrew Omobamidele, and then Ben Gibson, and a composed finish on the half-volley to earn a point at Reading in early October and it is quite the body of work for a player who turned 31 this week. 

That milestone might surprise a few, given Hanley’s longevity since his arrival as the statement signing of Daniel Farke’s opening months in charge back in 2017. 

Look back over the entirety of his Norwich spell and those persistent injury absences feel like they are behind the Scot. Albeit there was a shoulder issue to manage earlier in this campaign that had echoes of last season, and a similar problem, following a challenge with Cristiano Ronaldo. 

But Hanley’s on going fitness is no longer the sub-text it was during much of the first part of his Carrow Road career. On a personal performance level this season there has been the odd blemish.

One goes back to the manner he allowed Patrick Jones to back him into his own penalty area to pull a goal back for Huddersfield in a 2-1 home win in mid-August. But there has also been the obduracy and defiance you associate with a physically imposing presence at the back. Notably that stiff Saturday lunchtime examination away to Sunderland, when Hanley and Omobamidele stood firm, rode their luck at times, and then watched Josh Sargent cash in at the other end. 

It is his collective responsibility as part of a defence that has too often been breached that is of a bigger concern as we approach the half-way mark.

The way Hanley, Gibson and Max Aarons were all pulled out of position, or in the full back’s case, slow to react to Middlesbrough’s stoppage time winner was a case in point. In the interconnected nature of things City’s backline were also left exposed by midfielders bypassed too easily by Boro’s slick interplay.  

Until Isaac Hayden’s belated appearance in the Norwich line up that had been a constant theme.

Marcelino Nunez is learning the ropes in England, Liam Gibbs is learning the ropes at senior level. Two very good prospects but at this stage neither offer the sturdiness of an Olly Skipp and a Kenny McLean pairing the last time Hanley found himself at this level. 

The skipper himself highlighted his former Newcastle team mate's streetwise edge when he remarked on the added robustness of having ‘another man in our side’ following Hayden’s first start at Sheffield United. That comment alone hinted at a sense from the captain perhaps the dial had been tilted too much towards raw talent with not enough of the grit required for serial Championship combat. 

That said, recent results may have been different had Omobamidele stayed fit. Which is less a reflection on Gibson and more a feeling this is Smith’s first choice central defensive pairing.

You can see the attraction. Hanley has the miles on the clock and knows all about the pitfalls as a teenage prospect coming through at Blackburn. He is a seasoned international who understands his position and by actions rather than words can impart that knowledge and reassurance on a young man who has the athletic gifts to play at the highest level.

Smith has highlighted the lack of natural balance that requires the right-footed Hanley to shift to the left but Norwich’s most consistent run of results was built around that defensive axis. It is no coincidence the early season failings and underlying concerns have since returned.  

Hanley’s experience will be invaluable when City resume after the World Cup pause. Smith wants to see a ‘different animal’ as he bids to eradicate the frailties which threaten to turn a fight for automatic promotion into a scramble for a play-off place.

In that endeavour Hanley remains indispensable.

His close quarters marking and ability to read the play are as good as any in this current squad. Count the number of times per game he reacts quicker than his direct opponent to stop things at source in and around the half-way line.

He may lack the polish of Gibson in possession, or the innate instincts to step into midfield and break the lines, but in a season which now feels it is shaping up into a battle of endurance rather than entertainment the captain remains a focal point.